A lot is being said about time: that it slips by fast, that it is money, that it makes you wiser, that it gives you the opportunity to reflect and also that it heals wounds. A week ago the biggest political protests the country has ever seen was dispersed by the army in a military crackdown that itself was not the disaster that shocked the nation – it was the aftermath that has left not only parts of Bangkok, but also many parts of the country in rubbles. It was the final day of a military advance that killed over 50 and injured nearly 400 people – the total body count of the protests is 85 and over 2000 respectively. It was that May 19th, 2010 that has ripped an even bigger wound.
This was different from the deadly clashes of April 10, or any other riots that happened in the capital. We witnessed an escalation of violence, bottled-up anger and disappointment and also the definite destruction of the national myth of unity and peace. Even though the national anthem says that “Thais love peace” but the next line also states that we are not afraid to fight. But what are we fighting for?
There is no doubt that a large group of the red shirt protesters have a genuine political consciousness and want a democracy, where their vote counts, where their voices and concerns are heard in Bangkok and that their lives are improved with immediate and visible effect. Like it or not, the United Front against Dictatorship for Democracy, as they are formally called, are a political movement you cannot get rid off that easy anymore. They are here to stay! But to say that this group is only made up of uneducated, poor rural workers that are easily lured in with gloomy promises is factually wrong and devalues any reasonable discussion.
The government side, at least prime minister Abhisit, attempted a soft approach to the protesters and even when the red shirts seized the important commercial part of Bangkok, he remained relatively mild-tempered. The fact that it dragged on for nearly two months is partly because he, and probably many people in Bangkok as well, have underestimated the red protesters‘ stamina and defiance.
But, as in any conflict, the radical voices are the loudest and over the course of the protests the moderate and reasonable were being pushed aside. This was evident when Abhisit offered the red shirt leaders a so-called ‘roadmap to reconciliation’ that included new elections by November. It came at a time when the red shirts suffered a massive public fallout after a militant wing of the movement stormed through the nearby Chulalongkorn Hospital in search of any hidden soldiers. It was the last chance for a peaceful solution and to walk away without losing face. But any hopes were dashed when the UDD leaders failed to agree and added more and more counter-demands. This was the moment were the moderates on all sides have lost. What happened next was the beginning of the end.
Even if the protesters are now dispersed, the streets of Bangkok are clear again and many people are relieved, unfortunately though, the worst isn‘t over – the mess has just begun! What can happen now is a radicalization of all fractions. People do not want to trust each other even more, the prejudice one had of the other is now more solidified. The divide between Bangkok and the rest of the country will grow and as the mob attacks in the provinces have shown, conflicts and clashes will not take place in the capital exclusively. If we are not careful things will get uglier.
A taste of what‘s to come can be found online already in the past week where a large part of Thai netizens display their loyalty to the status quo and at the same time fiercely attack everyone who dares to criticize it or even have a different opinion. Especially CNN has come under fire for their alleged biased reporting during the protests, starting with an open letter. And even though this has already been proven to be factually wrong in many parts, people still praise this letter without any question. This single case shows that many people are less willing to hear from voices from outside and that are different to their‘s, they are immune to criticism. This marginalization of opinion diversity can only lead to isolation.
And here‘s in my opinion one of the main problems that lead to this tragedy: How can there by in any way be a reconciliation of all, if the majority refuses to listen what others have to say? How will there be harmony without understanding the issues in order to resolve them? And how will there be unity if every single Thai does not start to look at each other face-to-face on equal terms?
It is not a national tragedy just because many Bangkok residents have a few places less to make a shopping therapy. It is a national tragedy because people have been killed, damage has been done not by an foreign threat, but by Thais themselves. It is a national tragedy because never before it was shown that bluntly that the institutions and their participants, that are essential in a democratic system, are ineffective to solve problems.
Now that the government has issued an arrest warrant against Thaksin for terrorism charges, they have intensified a seemingly obsessive witch hunt that has blinded parts of the nation (including the newspaper of the same name) for years now. What many slowly seem to realize now is that even though it may have started with Thaksin, who is despite several human rights violations and cronyism according to some is unfortunately already the best what Thai democracy had to offer, this is now way beyond him now. This is a result of a collective failure that became evident during the Thaksin years and even more evident since the 2006 coup.
What I hope for this country is that the people will not try to put a blanket over the ever-increasing rift and blindly preach peace, love and unity until the next escalation. I hope that everybody will sincerely think for a moment why we got to this point and does not forget this at the next best diversion. This national wound takes more than time to heal. What it needs is a reconsideration of everything, our way of life, the definition of “Thai-ness”, the way we teach our children how to think independently and openly voice their opinion, the perception of a good government, a fair and balanced media. In general, a mature democratic society where a reasonable debate can take place in order to solve the social problems of the nation.
I have my doubts though that it will happen anytime soon…